Valley rig-rockers Flathead face an uncertain future

The members of local rig-rock trio Flathead are beaming. Guitarist Greg Swanholm and drummer Vince Ramirez grin profusely and chide each other as they hurriedly load equipment into the back of a car parked behind the Bash on Ash in Tempe. Even bassist Kevin Daly, a 20-year veteran of various Valley stages, looks flush with excitement. His normally measured tone is bright, even chirpy, as he thanks a stream of backstage well-wishers.

Daly's post-gig euphoria is understandable. The group has shaken off the dust from a lengthy lacuna to play a set that's easily the highlight of the annual New Times Music Showcase.

A tight yet rowdy 45-minute turn has left the throng of 500 fans and friends at the Bash in a state of near frenzy. Their cheers lure the band back for the only encore of the event. After a pair of furious twangers, the show culminates in a shower of beer bottles and glasses hitting the stage.

Twangs for the memories: Kevin Daly (center) bids adieu to Flathead, while Greg Swanholm (left) and Vince Ramirez carry on.
Paolo Vescia
Twangs for the memories: Kevin Daly (center) bids adieu to Flathead, while Greg Swanholm (left) and Vince Ramirez carry on.

Zoom forward six weeks. Daly's voice is far more somber as he explains his unexpected departure from Flathead, just one of several recent changes which, at the very least, has cast a pall of uncertainty over the future of the band.

Daly joined Flathead in 1997, replacing original bassist Ruth Wilson. After his arrival, the group briefly went as D-Liar before reverting to its former moniker. Daly ends his run with the group after nearly three years, one album and hundreds of gigs.

Part of his decision was spurred by the band's recent inactivity. With the exception of the Music Showcase set (and a May gig at Long Wong's), Flathead has been on a six-month performing hiatus. The layoff was chiefly the result of a serious hand injury that precluded Swanholm from playing regularly for much of the winter and spring. The band had also spent parts of the break intermittently working on tracks for its third album, a follow-up to 1999's Play the Good One.

In the meantime, Daly, Ramirez and Rumble Cat Rich Merriman revived their psychobilly side project, Grave Danger. The group -- which is fronted by a guitar-playing Daly -- has been winning raves and a growing following for its over-the-top live performances and Dick Dale-meets-Satan shtick. In addition to Grave Danger, Daly is a member (along with Nitpickers Dave Insley and Jeff Farias) of neo-country collective the Trophy Husbands. Both groups are readying their debut discs for release this fall.

Daly decided to cut ties with Flathead after returning from a European vacation in early June.

"When I was in Italy, I took a week off -- I didn't think about work, I didn't think about music, I just relaxed -- and my mind was clear when I came back," recalls Daly quietly. "I thought, "Why on Earth record another album with [Flathead]? If Greg and Vince are going to continue with the band regardless of whether I left, it would just be dishonest for me to keep going along with it. I figured this would be a good time for a break, rather than going in and doing more work and then pulling out."

As it turned out, Swanholm was thinking along those same lines when he and Daly met at the beginning of this month.

"He was blunt," says Daly. "He said, 'I haven't enjoyed playing out for a long time. And it's not like I'm leaving you [and Ramirez] in a lurch, because you have a lot of other stuff going on.' He told me he has some songs that he wants to record, that he wants to keep Flathead going in a sense, but that he wants to take his time with the album. He's also got a really successful [computer programming] business going and that's something he also has to devote a lot of time and attention to. So that was basically it as far as being a regular 'band' in my mind."

Daly says he has no regrets, save for a slight sense of disappointment at not having taken what has arguably been the Valley's most exciting roots band to a higher level of national prominence.

"Otherwise, we had a great run, a fantastic run," he says.

While he concedes that Daly's departure is a "big change," Swanholm is quick to add that the split is "totally amicable as far as I'm concerned."

"Kevin is pursuing the Grave Danger thing, and they're doing really well," he says. "As far the band goes, we've always had an open-door policy. Kevin has a new lease on life playing guitar and loving it. That's what he's about now. He's found his thing."

Swanholm says that in addition to the three rough tracks that Flathead has already completed, there are 10 others he and Ramirez (who will continue playing with both Flathead and Grave Danger) plan to flesh out before going into the studio next month.

At this point it's not clear who will replace Daly in the studio, though it seems likely that the bass parts will be provided by a session musician. (One early rumor had former rhythm slapper Wilson rejoining the band, possibly for a one-off gig, something that Swanholm flatly denies ever considering.)

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